Irish Travelers, also known as Pavees or Mincéirs, are an ethnic group originally from Ireland, with a centuries-old history of nomadic life across their country. Despite their deep roots in the Emerald Isle, they were only officially recognized as an ethnic group by the Irish government in 2017 and have consistently faced prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination from the rest of society, while being under constant pressure to assimilate and abandon their cultural practices. . To shed light on the experience of Irish travelers, a panel was organized to discuss community in the context of the 21st century and the challenges that come with it.
In another installment of the UConn Reads series, discussing The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh, the UConn Humanities Institute hosted a panel discussion titled “Irish Travelers: The Nation-State, a Minority marginalized and the climate crisis, ”moderated by Mary Burke, English teacher, Irish Concentration Coordinator and Director of the English Honors Program at UConn Storrs Campus.
The panel included Malcolm Sen, assistant professor of English at UMass Amherst, and Jamie Johnson, a Los Angeles-based photographer who specializes in fine art and documentary projects about children whose work brought her to life. Ireland to meet and document the traveler’s experience. The two panelists were joined by Leanne McDonagh and Mícheál Ó hAodha who shared their thoughts in the post-presentation commentary.
Sen discussed Travelers in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and global climate crisis, explaining how uncertainty experienced by individuals around the world is common for Travelers and can be for the humanity as climate change continues to threaten its existence.
Before the pandemic, society – particularly in Ireland – was already facing a considerable number of problems, with the ‘financial crisis’, the ‘debt crisis’, the ‘housing crisis’ and the ‘Brexit crisis’ being all spoken regularly on Irish newsreels. This sense of uncertainty has forced many to blame it on “others” in society, or those on the other side of the border.
“The border is where the war begins,” Sen said. “It is also a place where war talks can end.”
In the case of Travelers, Burke explained, society has continually ostracized these individuals for not embracing the progressive and consumerist cultural values of the majority seen from the 1920s with the creation of the Irish nation state.
Burke explained that the great irony of cosmopolitan society’s contempt for Travelers is that humanity may adopt a more nomadic way of life in the wake of the climate crisis and the disappearance of habitable lands.
Johnson, who has spent her entire career photographing children – both in the privileged crowd in Los Angeles and in poverty in Laos, Cuba and now Ireland – explained why she chose to write a book after having met the children of the traveler from Ireland.
“I wanted to tell their stories,” Johnson said. “I wanted to show their photos. I wanted to have an uplifting look at these happy children. They don’t need any of the modern conveniences, loot toys, and electronics. And they are strong, happy, and wonderful children.
Johnson explained that it is much more difficult for a person to defend a malicious stereotype of a group of people when they see the innocence and sheer joy displayed by a child in that group.
“There are so many stereotypes going on,” Johnson said. “And it’s ridiculous for anyone to stereotype a child.”